Spock’s Beard Bring ‘Snow’ to Life: Video Premiere and Interview
Spock’s Beard released their sprawling double concept album Snow in 2002. At that time, the band was already becoming less of a well-kept secret as more and more people began to discover their music. They were proof that progressive rock was alive and well.
But fans weren’t aware of what was going on behind the scenes. After the record was completed, singer-songwriter Neal Morse had given the rest of the members of the Los Angeles group his notice that he was leaving. Following a conversion to Christianity that had taken shape over the previous years, he had decided to pursue a different musical direction. Though the group would continue (with drummer Nick D’Virgilio taking over vocals) at the urging of Morse, there was no tour in support of the Snow album.
Nearly 15 years later, the members of Spock’s Beard reconvened at Morse’s annual Morsefest gathering in Nashville in the summer of 2016 to perform the Snow album live in its entirety for the first time ever. The performance was recorded on audio and video and is now available in a variety of configurations as Snow Live.
You can check out “Solitary Soul” from the set above, and read our new interview with Morse below.
Tell me about the experience of recording the Snow album.
I remember it being quite difficult for a lot of different reasons. There were a lot of logistical difficulties. I remember toward the end, we were recording on ADATs, which was an old digital recording system where you recorded actually audio onto VHS tapes. I remember singing the whole second half of the album and really pouring my heart out into it and feeling like I finally really nailed it. A week later or something, that entire tape was blank and so was the safety. [Laughs] It was bizarre. I had to re-sing the whole end and I was super-bummed out about it. The whole vamp at the very end of the album, where I’m ad-libbing all of that stuff, there were things like that. It took us two years to make the album, which was twice as long as any other album that we’d worked on. I was trying to get it all on one disc and originally it wasn’t telling a story. I think I just had a lot of the songs sort of strung together and some of the themes. I flew out to Los Angeles, because I thought, “Well, let’s just get together and maybe as we’re working on it, it will just become clearer. I just couldn’t get out of the fog with this record. It just wouldn’t become clear to me what we should do and where we should go. And it didn’t seem like the other guys really knew either. So I flew out there and we were supposed to track some of the stuff that we liked. Sometimes, it’s better to start moving -- I like the analogy of [how] you can’t steer a parked car. I thought, “Well, if we start moving, we’ll discover the direction we need to go.” I went out there and it was completely fruitless. Nick got so sick that he couldn’t show up. I’d never known him to ever be that sick. I mean, he could barely get on the phone. Me and the other guys kind of got together at Ryo [Okumoto]’s house, I remember, to try and write and work this thing out and nothing really was coming.
It just wasn’t really working. I remember saying, “I think this wants to tell a story and once we figure out what the story is, that’s going to tell us what the rest of the album is supposed to be.” I was just going to come home early -- I had a movable ticket. It was on a Monday and I remember talking to my wife and her saying, “Why don’t you just fly home tonight?” I said, “No, I already have a hotel room, I’ll come home in the morning.” The next morning was 9/11. I was actually on my way to LAX when the second plane hit. So then I went to my parents’ place, because they said that the airport was closed. Then I found out that all of the airports were closed. So I went outside and I prayed about it, and I felt like I should just hit the road in my rental car. Because they had a moratorium on rental car return fees. I drove my rental car that I rented in L.A. all of the way to Nashville, by myself over the course of two days. I don’t think I’ve ever driven that far by myself in my entire life. It was a weird experience. There was a real end-of-the-world vibe out there in the desert and people at the gas stations were saying, “Hey, you’d better stock up on gas, I hear they’re going to close the gas stations.” All of this kind of stuff. Somehow through all of that, while I was driving across the desert, that’s when the Snow story came into focus in my mind. I began to write as I was driving. I was writing “Made Alive” and some of the other things. I remember driving and watching the road and scribbling things out with my right hand on the driver’s seat. So that was a big part of the album, was when the story came into focus. Then I began to really put all of the pieces into place. But yeah, it was difficult. It was not an easy album to make.
Something that’s always struck me about the record is that there’s a faith-based element to the storyline. With your move to Christianity, you ended up leaving the band. Was the picture kind of already clear that you were going to do that when you were working on this record? When did that all develop? Because that seems like something that could come together during a drive like that.
I don’t remember the exact timeline, but somewhere in the process of making this album, and I think it would probably be around that same time, because I remember thinking it was nine months between when the Lord told me in a moment of prayer while I was running, doing my morning run and I was praying. Without going into too much detail, I just felt like God was telling me, “It’s time for you to quit this direction and go a different direction.” I felt like I should finish the album and then quit the band, which is what I wound up doing. But yeah, that was part of the tremendous emotional difficulty, for me personally, in making the album. It was weird, because here we were working on this album and I was already feeling like I was probably going to quit the band. But I was just trying to feel what I felt I should do. It was a pretty big thing to not be talking about, so it was really hard.
In the story of Snow, I’ve always been able to hear that element of spiritual exploration. It just kind of makes what you did after this album was released kind of interesting. You can listen to this record and see the pieces and parts of the journey that you were about to take, developing.
You can hear it, because that’s where my heart was. You know, you write from your heart. Songs were coming out of my heart like “Open Wide the Flood Gates” and “Wind at My Back” and “I Will Go.” The challenge was, “How does this make any sense? How can I take this stuff that’s coming out of me and parlay it or make it work for a Spock’s Beard album?” That’s kind of where the story came in about this guy who has this gift and discovers his ministry and then falls from grace and then kind of comes back to the Lord through his friends. I think it’s such a beautiful moment in “I Will Go,” where his friends gather around him in the hospital room and then they touch him and then he receives life. Like, the laying on of hands. There’s all kinds of implications from it all, but it’s all about redemption and restoration.
How did the rest of the band take the overall story and material? Was there anybody that flagged what the direction felt like?
The only one who did was my brother, Alan. He was the only one that was really paying attention to the lyrical content. The other guys never really commented on it. It was only Al. He kind of joked with me later on, “Yeah, when I heard ‘I Will Go,’ I should have thought, ‘Oh, he’s leaving.’ You might as well have just sang, ‘I’m leaving.’” [Laughs] But everyone else was just completely stunned. I mean, I felt terrible, because I just completely blindsided those guys. They had no clue.
Yeah, then I assume you’ve probably got to talk to the label as well.
How did that go down?
It went down really well. Incredible, actually. To the credit of both Brian Slagel [at Metal Blade] and Thomas Waber [at Inside Out America]. In fact, Thomas was the only one during that time -- because after I told the band, then I told the labels and it was like, “Well, what’s the strategy, guys?” I just surrendered to them. “What do you guys want to do? I don’t want to mess anything up more than this is already messing you up.” They said, “Let’s wait until after the interview season, after the album is released.” I think they decided that they wanted to announce it about a month after Snow was released, it was made public.
So you had to go through the whole press cycle then.
Oh gosh, it was horrible.
I don’t think I knew that part.
Yeah, and we were bigger than we’d ever been. So I had like six interviews a day for weeks. And I couldn’t talk about what was really going on. It was so heavy at that time. Because I grieved and went through all of my emotions about it during the nine month period before I told the band. But then, they went through their whole process. It was a process of grief, anger, denial, all of that stuff. But we all went through our whole process and in our own ways. It was kind of like, that was still going on while I’m doing this interview season. I was trying to stay focused, but I was really distracted by all of it. It was rough.
For that era of the band, you guys went out with an unbelievable record. When you had the record done, at the very least, could you feel that the band had created something really special?
I don’t know if I can still see or hear this album clearly. I can’t experience it like other people experience it. And that was one of the things that i wanted to do when we played it live. I wanted to experience it through you. I wanted to experience it through the audience. In the liner notes of the artbook version of Snow Live, I talk about Snow being the child of a divorced couple, like this is the child that we had, right before the divorce. But the child went out and lived. The child had an amazing life that I didn’t really have a connection to. So it was kind of like, I wanted to experience that. I’m glad I got to do that.
Tell me about the conversations that led to the decision to perform this album in full.
Really, it was Nick’s idea to begin with. I think Nick contacted all of us like five years ago. I kind of feel bad about it. For a long time, I was like, “No, I don’t want to.” And then when I was ready, it was like, “Hey, do you guys want to do this? I’m ready now!” [Laughs] I didn’t mean for it to be like that, but it just never fit for me. I was in the middle of other things, you know, Transatlantic or Flying Colors or a solo album or something. It just never fit. But in 2016, I had space and so I just threw it out to the guys and of course, obviously they all said yes and we were able to play it from start to finish, the amazing Snow album, for the first time.
What was the process like, putting this together for the live performance? I don’t know how much you guys had even played these songs as a band in the studio during the time that you were recording the album. It must have been interesting, just learning all of the songs, collectively.
Oh yeah, it was. It was quite a thing. I really had to drill the words, because it’s not an album that I listen to very much either, because it was so painful for me. But I’d done parts of it on other occasions. I think there was a tour I did in Europe with my European band where we did all of the way from “Open Wide the Flood Gates” to the end of side one. I’d done “I’m the Guy” at a festival in Holland. There were certain parts of it that I’d done. But there was some of it that I had no connection with. [Laughs] I didn’t even remember how it goes, like, “4th of July,” how does it go? That kind of thing
It had to be pretty intense, rehearsing with these guys, hearing Spock’s Beard play all of this stuff for the first time.
It was really cool. I mean, I forgot how unique they all are. What a bass sound, what a guitar sound, you know, what drummers these guys [are], both Nick and Jimmy. Ryo’s keyboard sounds, their playing and their personalities and everything, it was cool.
The added layer, it’s the band’s original lineup, plus current members, performing this album live. How did you go about divvying all of that up musically and figuring out how it was all going to shake out for the live performance?
I can’t remember honestly whose idea it was to include them and do it with all seven of us, but whoever it was, it was a brilliant idea. I had to go through the album and kind of give Ted notes about what I thought he should do, what I was going to be doing, what he should sing, when he should play guitar, what I was going to want to front and all of that. But we got on Skype together. We had at least one or two Skype sessions where we all got on and discussed and even practiced some of the vocal parts.
Do you think there’s a chance of further live performances of this record?
I highly doubt it. But I mean, I guess you never know. Anything’s possible.
It seems like it’s a pretty intense undertaking.
Yeah, but it was really fun. It was everything. You know, it was really intense emotionally and fun and moving and beautiful. All of the above.
What’s next for you in the coming year. There’s a Flying Colors album on tap. Is that finished at this point?
No, we have it about two-thirds done and we haven’t been able to get together to finish it.
What’s the current thought as far as when it might hopefully be done and out?
Well, the next thing for me is that I have a singer-songwriter album that’s going to come out Feb. 1 of next year. That’s being mixed right now. It’s not a prog album. It’s a normal song album. It’s an album your wife might actually like.
Do you feel like it’s different for you?
Yeah, I think it’s different. It’s been really different for me as a musician and writer to try and keep it mellow and keep it easy and grooving. There’s a lot of feel good songs on there and then there’s some deeper more emotional pieces also. There’s a song called “He Died at Home,” about soldier suicides that’s really heavy. It runs a bit of a gamut, but almost all of it is real acoustic-oriented and definitely lighter fare.